JUMP CUT
A REVIEW OF CONTEMPORARY MEDIA

La nación clandestina: Sebastián's workshop in the city. The night before Sebastián’s departure for Willkani, where he will perform the Jacha Tata Danzante, his apprentice comes to his coffin-making workshop to try to dissuade him from going. Sebastián has already disposed of his belongings and proceeded to get violently drunk. The relatively tight framing of the characters creates renders the space claustrophobic and coffin-like. The relentlessly circular tracking of the camera imparts a sense of Sebastián’s drunkenness and moral panic.

Camera position 2 on the drawing.

Camera position 4.

Camera position 6.

Camera position 8.

Camera position 10.

Japanese poster for La nación clandestina.

Sebastián denies his Aymara roots after dancing in the festival of El Gran Poder.

Sebastián’s family in front of their home in the village of Willkani.

A radical student fleeing the army asks for help from villagers who cannot understand him.

 

 

The all-encompassing
sequence shot

by Jorge Sanjinés, 1989

translated by Cecilia Cornejo
and Dennis Hanlon

In the ongoing formal investigations we had to face in order to communicate effectively and coherently, the main concern, in terms of cinematic grammar, has been to determine the shooting and editing styles appropriate for our addressees’ ‘internal rhythms’ and unique cosmovision.[1] [open endnotes in new window] We must keep in mind that these addressees are not Europeans, North Americans, or even residents of Buenos Aires, but rather the Andean masses, the millions of Aymara and Quechua peasants, the hundreds of thousands of laborers and workers who trace their origins to these cultures, as well as those Andean city-dwellers who, consciously or unconsciously, respond in a similar way to a cultural sensibility sustained by centuries of contact, exchange, and interpenetration with the potent cultures of the Andes. Because, curiously enough, a sophisticated Bolivian intellectual who prides himself on having mastered Proust’s oeuvre, composed rhymes in Greek like Franz Tamayo[2], or written only in French, almost always expresses, in his [sic] manners, attitudes, and ways of thinking, the accumulated sediment which centuries of Aymara and Quechua thought have left in his being, despite the racism, scorn, and even virulent hatred his class levels towards those oppressed masses, the direct heirs of the Andean tradition. And so, a doctor in La Paz or Cochabamba is different from an educated native of Santa Cruz, even though both are Bolivian.

The cruceño intellectual, a direct descendent of the Spanish colonizers, isolated by the green wall of the jungle and the imposing chain of the Andes, speaks and thinks in a different fashion; he constructs his universe differently, and his understanding of nature is propelled by the exuberance, by the heat and the torrential rains. The climate makes him a boisterous, gregarious, and cheerful parrandero.[3] His childhood memories were never populated by the magic of the mountain winds, nor was he nourished by Aymara women who would speak to him in their native tongue, telling him tales of anchancho, the imp of the high pampas. His ears never heard the harsh and profound longing of the zampoñas, the pinkillos, the lament of the quenas, or the infinite silence of the pampas.[4] That is why this cruceño, who is closer to Corumbá in Brazil than La Paz, Cuzco, or Quito, is culturally different. But no matter how Europeanized or Americanized a gentleman from the Peruvian highlands might appear from the outside, he will be much better able to understand a language designed within the communicative parameters of the Andean peoples, for the ‘infiltrations’, the rhythms, cadences, and style of the Andes reside deep in his psyche.


La nación clandestina script: Sanjinés’ drawing of the shooting of a scene in Sebastián’s workshop, which was carefully followed in the actual filming. The scene is captured in a sequence shot.


For all these reasons, when we speak of an addressee, we understand this to represent a greater spectrum of people than just the Aymara and Quechua peasants. It could be that some are more able than others to apprehend this language, but this seems relative to us.

From the break we proposed with the mechanics of our narrative starting with our experience with Yawar Mallku (Blood of the Condor, 1969)—a film whose language was based on elements learned from European-American cinema—beginning with El coraje del pueblo (The Courage of the People, 1971), we undertook a search for a structure that would contravene the tradition of the individual protagonist so present in fiction films in order to affirm the collective protagonist. But it was in the next film, El enemigo principal (The Principal Enemy, 1974), that narrative changes geared toward finding cultural and psychological coherence, along with effective communication, began to appear more clearly. With this film begins the use of the sequence shot[5] as well as the practice of revealing the plot’s resolution in advance as a means of neutralizing suspense in order to create spaces of reflection, thus liberating the spectator from the traps common to all plots based on red herrings and deceit. Similar to the way that the individual protagonist creates powerful bonds of subjective identification with the spectator, suspense, as a narrative tool, manipulates the spectator’s attention, closing off spaces and times for reflection.

All incorporated elements sought consistency with the basic proposition of such works, which were proposed as spaces in which the masses can reflect upon themselves. At the same time, these films attempted to more closely approximate the Andean cultural structures, in which the collective predominates over the individual. Quechua storytelling itself is founded upon foreknowledge of the plot’s resolution and contents prior to the playing out of the narrative.

In El enemigo principal the sequence shot began to interpret the collective gaze while suggesting the spectator’s participation within the scene. Unfortunately, due to technical and often times material limitations—mainly the lack of film stock—it was not possible to realize the goals of the original project, which was to make the entire film in lengthy sequence shots. The same thing happened in the next film, ¡Fuera de aquí! (Get Out of Here!, 1977); we still had not yet reached a definitive understanding of what we were looking for in implementing the sequence shot. In ¡Fuera de aquí! we achieved three or four sequence shots that completely encompassed a whole sequence. In the rest of the film, however, as with El enemigo principal, it often happened that a single sequence was composed of several lengthy, hand-held shots whose internal logic failed to correspond with our aims, succeeding only at times in transmitting a collective point of view and offering a sense of participation. Mixing these lengthy takes with close-ups wrecked the style and diminished the effectiveness of our approach.

Nevertheless, these experiments did much to affirm our resolve to find a sequence shot in keeping with the ideological and cultural requirements. It became evident that the sequence shot—because of the ample spaces it offered, the near absence of abrupt close-ups, and the dominant presence of a group of performers who could follow and attend to the action—introduced yet another element, one which undeniably conferred the sequence shot with a democratic dimension, for here were non-professional actors who could choose whether or not to engage in ways that, although unscripted, were welcome.

Within this technical approach, the close-up ceased to take the leading role, and if we chose to use it at all, it responded to the collective actor’s decision to take a closer look at something. Thus the close-up lost its connotations of individualism and dominance. It was not imposed on the spectator but made its way to him out of its own volition or the demands of the internal dynamics of the scene.

We have indicated elsewhere our belief that form determines content, which could mean the same as McLuhan’s well-known dictum.[6] It is clear that the close-up lends itself to an iconic reading of ideological and historical contents which correspond to western European culture, and that its hermeneutic contradicts the communal and collective conceptions found in other cultures. That being said, our goal is not to completely do away with this narrative resource, but rather to use it under different coordinates.

Consequently, in order to develop the theory of what we like to call the all-encompassing sequence shot, we must first make a brief historical summary of some narrative elements of cinema.

History

When cinema first reveals its expressive possibilities and manifests itself as a new art form, the close-up quickly comes to occupy the most prominent place in cinema’s expressive resources. Griffith in the U.S., Eisenstein, the Russian theorists, the German Expressionists, and all the other great classic European creators use this resource with great mastery, discovering and developing its remarkable possibilities. They use it with complete propriety and great talent, with total cultural and ideological coherence. These are men and creators who belong to a particular culture: the Hellenic Judeo-Christian western culture. They are descendents of Aristotle, Homer, and Esquilo; they were born into a world dominated by the idea of a God-man, and individualism has been instilled in them as life’s axis and aspiration. The development of private property has enshrined the rule of man over man, while the powerful ideas of personal accumulation and personal realization, detached from the collective fate, have come to be accepted and projected as inalienable rights. Therefore, in the art of western culture, the singular, the particular, the individual, acquire paramount importance, and their iconic expressions, maximum significance. The close-up takes on a leading role in cinema; it denotes a certain vision of life and way of understanding and constructing reality.

Of course, it would be fanatical and absurd to dismiss the close-up from cinematic narrative solely because it represents a particular cultural stance and contains a specific ideology. It is a completely valid resource when used to punctuate situations in cinematic narrative and it must be used when the narrative demands it. What is at stake, from our standpoint, is not using the close-up as the western cinema does, since, simply put, such usage lacks coherence with the cosmovision of our peoples, especially the great Andean majorities. The search for a shooting and editing style that expresses this cosmovision while remaining true to the ideological content of our cultures is the task we must engage in.

Obviously, the close-up will be used at similar times in various kinds of narratives. If we approach the face of the protagonist, it will be with a pan, a travelling shot, or a handheld camera following a subjective point of view, while an American screenwriter indicates a close-up by means of a direct cut in his script. Both approaches will convey a certain dramatic intensity at a certain moment, but what should interest us is not this similarity but rather their placement in the larger context of the narrative.

Likewise, the fragmentation of scenes into various shots, whether this be for purposes of description or dramatic interest, has its origin, in our view, in the European pictorial tradition. In classical, naturalist, figurative painting, the painter selects a graphic moment, a scene, a person, or a landscape, and then he composes a painting following certain guidelines and “golden” rules that situate and reveal the key points upon which human attention is unconsciously concentrated. Nevertheless, the great masters have broken these rules and produced marvelous works, but generally speaking, art schools teach these rules as the very basis of pictorial composition. In film schools these same rules are appealed to and painting is held up as an example. The cinema ended up orienting itself toward the most conventional of pictorial spaces, adopting the horizontal rectangle as its preferred format.

The tendency to splinter into various “paintings” or frames of careful composition obeys a well-developed grammar cinema began to use to narrate its stories; the fragmented shots that showed their subjects at various distances began to acquire names in a nomenclature that became universal—close-up, plan américain,[7] long shot, etc. But it is interesting to note that such fragmentation also reflects a particular way of understanding reality that is consistent with an individualistic vision of society and life. This is a splintered society that seeks resolution through constant ruptures in human relations as well as in its own organic composition. By breaking up space, we render a social universe of remnants, of gaps, of psychological violence, a society of individual spaces, of demarcated territories, of places “owned”, a society of rankings, of social differences, of privileges—finally, of class. There is neither continuity nor harmony in western society.

Individualism as an attitude, a life philosophy, and as a social practice, demands that society’s expressive components be sealed off from one another—each individual in his little box, every person in “her” own world, every ego in its proper cell. The “I” of the close-up reigns onscreen; the language of mutilation gained great force through it, and so it was accepted and preserved as natural. It was and is consistent with the cosmovision of a society that has perturbed and denatured the integrity of relationships among people and that has desecrated the relationship between humans and nature, destroying the continuity and complementarity vital to both.

For all these reasons, in order to narrate the lives and struggles of the Andean people, especially groups like the Aymara, who make up a huge percentage of the Bolivian population (circa 40%), it is most appropriate to use a cinematic language of greater scenic continuity, one less fragmented that allows a feel for the same collective integrity they have created and developed as a way of resolving their internal relations and their relations with nature, of which they believe themselves to be part, not owners.

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